Athletics: Olympic teamwork fires Lewis-Francis in quest to achieve individual glory

Britain's speedster talks to Mike Rowbottom about his renewed ambition after beating the Americans in Athens
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The Independent Online

The image of Mark Lewis-Francis's bounding, whooping celebration after seeing Britain home to their unexpected Olympic sprint relay gold last summer will endure in the mind as long as that of Kelly Holmes' startled expression - half joy, half fear - in securing the first of her two gold medals in Athens.

The image of Mark Lewis-Francis's bounding, whooping celebration after seeing Britain home to their unexpected Olympic sprint relay gold last summer will endure in the mind as long as that of Kelly Holmes' startled expression - half joy, half fear - in securing the first of her two gold medals in Athens.

But while Holmes deliberates on the end game of a career that reached a glorious culmination in Greece, Lewis-Francis, still only 22, faces a very different challenge.

"It was a nice feeling to cross the line ahead of the Americans," he said. "It was something I can't explain. But it made me sit down and think about where my athletics is going. Winning the relay was a dream come true. But it wasn't enough. My job's not done yet."

Four years earlier, the only problem Lewis-Francis had to contend with was whether to go to the Sydney Olympics or seek a world junior 100 metres title. He chose the latter course, and succeeded. Since then, however, a series of misfortunes and ill-timed injuries have slowed down his meteoric progression, and he had to take his share of the criticism meted out in Athens by former athletes such as Colin Jackson and Michael Johnson when no British male sprinter reached either the 100 or 200m final.

He maintains that it was the disappointment at individual underperformances which provided the motivation for the relay triumph, rather than the harsh comments. But he admitted that his celebrations contained a fair measure of jubilation at the expense of those who had written off the possibility of victory.

"At the end, I was yelling to all you press guys: 'See, we did it!' I don't really care about criticism, but it was nice to prove someone wrong."

No sooner had he returned in triumph from Athens, however, than comments began to fly around the sport that it was time for him to ditch the coach who had guided him since the age of 12, Steve Platt, and seek alternative guidance.

"I needed to make a few decisions," he said. "I had to sit down and look at my angles." Among the options open to him was a move to London to join the training group run with considerable success by Tony Lester and including his fellow Olympic gold medallist Marlon Devonish.

Lewis-Francis, who was raised by his mother on the outskirts of Birmingham, decided to make one of his regular visits to see his father, Sean, who runs guest houses in the Jamaican beach resort of Ocho Rios.

"I went over for a couple of weeks," he said, "and we sat down together and talked about who would be the best coach for me.

"When I was over there, all the Jamaican press were phoning Dad's house every day. It was crazy. It's something special to get the same kind of attention over there as I do here.

"My Dad told me to look into my heart and trust my instincts. And I'm staying with Steve. Me and Steve have a great history. He's someone I can be around, and talk to about anything."

Since making his big decision, Lewis-Francis has been making regular trips to another beach, just along the coast from Cardiff, where he has been running every Sunday on the sand dunes along with sometime training partner Christian Malcolm and other athletes including the sprinter Tim Abeyie and the Welsh 400m hurdler Matt Elias.

The sessions have taken place under the direction of the former 100m Olympic champion Linford Christie in collaboration with Lewis-Francis and Malcolm's individual coaches, Platt and Jock Anderson respectively. As Lewis-Francis pointed out with the trace of a grin, the choice of venue was pretty obvious. "There are no sand dunes in Birmingham," he said.

"I don't know how far we run, but we go round on a big circuit five times, and it's very steep," he added. "The first time I did it I couldn't even drive home. It was that bad." The other part of his routine involves midweek work at his main training base in the High Performance Centre that now stands alongside Birmingham's Alexander Stadium, where Malcolm travels up to work alongside him.

Lewis-Francis appears to have re-set his course, but the experiences of the last few years have left him with a distinctly defensive air. "I don't think I've had a bad career. I got into the semi-final of the Olympics at my first attempt, I got gold in the relay. But the hunger's still there. Missing out on the Olympic final by one spot was heartbreaking..." Lewis-Francis is still in the process of putting everything together.

He has been working on reducing his weight after Platt decided he had been too heavy going into Athens. 'I was 91 kilograms at the Olympics, and now I'm down to 86.9," he said. "It's a big improvement. It's like the difference between a Jaguar and a Ferrari - the Ferrari will go faster because it's lighter."

The Lewis-Francis diet is not about to turn into a best-seller. It involves pretty straightforward stuff such as eating more nutritiously and cutting out unhealthy snacks, which in his case means no more crisps and wine gums.

His technique, too, has required attention. "Last year it was my finish that needed work on it," he said. "The year before it was my start. This year I'm focusing on pulling it all together and getting it all right. I'm not far away from it, to tell you God's honest truth."

Although he had to miss last weekend's European and AAA indoor trials as a precaution after suffering a slight hamstring tear at the end of January, Lewis-Francis plans to run in this Friday's Norwich Union Grand Prix in Birmingham against a top-quality field that includes his Olympic team-mate, the world indoor champion Jason Gardener, with a view to contesting the European Indoor Championships in Madrid next month. "I was second last time around," he said. "I want to come back this time with a gold medal." Such is Lewis-Francis's talent that gold is the standard by which he is judged. That is his burden; or his motivation.